Why India Needs a ‘Gati Shakti’ Scheme for Its Wildlife – The Wire Science


An Asiatic wild dog, or dhole. Photo: Davidvraju/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY SA 4.0


  • India is a superpower in terms of biodiversity conservation. Maintaining this status requires being constantly aware of the negative effects of human activities on nature.
  • The movement of animals between populations helps maintain genetic diversity and also allows populations to steer clear of environmental disasters.
  • Studies that investigated connectivity in Central India provided the first evidence of tigers moving through high-risk habitats, and proved instrumental in setting up forest corridors.
  • Scientists posit that unplanned development in the region could isolate and eventually eliminate tiger populations, a phenomenon known as local extirpation.
  • Species that are more habitat-sensitive than tigers, such as the endangered dholes (Asiatic wild dogs), find it more difficult to move through high-risk areas between populations.

On Independence Day 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the launch of the ‘Gati Shakti’ National Master Plan, an ambitious infrastructure project to bolster development by connecting economic zones. Leveraging the most advanced technology and tools, the project aims to subsume individual projects across different ministries and states under a single plan to promote seamless economic connectivity for goods and services across India.

The plan, unfortunately, has left out the voiceless inhabitants of India’s wild spaces. Occupying a mere 2.4% of the total land area on Earth, India supports an astounding 8% of all wildlife species and is home to four of the planet’s 36 biodiversity hotspots.

Considering that the country also has 17% of all humans on Earth, India is a superpower in terms of biodiversity conservation. Maintaining this status requires being constantly aware of the negative effects of human activities on nature, like habitat destruction, land-use change, forest-cover loss, etc., to not erode the conservation gains the country has achieved thus far.

Why are India’s wild animals where they are?

Most populations of large animals like tigers and elephants are found within protected areas (PAs) in the Western Ghats, the central Indian landscape, the Terai-Duar savannah and the eastern Himalaya. Most of these PAs were historically forests reserved for timber extraction, served as hunting grounds for the British and the Indian royalty, or were areas surrounding water reservoirs. These are places where wild animals managed to survive – as opposed to locations where they actively thrived.

Widespread hunting and persistent loss of habitats led to the shrinking of geographic ranges of many species. Tigers, for instance, have lost around 67% of their historical range just in the last 100 years.

Habitat loss and habitat degradation from roads, railways and power lines, and land-use changes around PAs decrease the amount of safe habitat available for wildlife. As a result, PAs become too small to support viable populations of large animals. Per some predictions, 29 of India’s 981 PAs are large enough to support more than 15 tigers (~1,000 sq. km); but only two of these PAs are capable of housing viable populations of more than 70 tigers (~5,000 sq. km).

Wild animals dispersing from smaller, isolated PAs are more likely to move outside and encounter high-risk locations such as highways and agricultural fields. The chance of negative interactions between people and wildlife increases in these areas, with wild animals facing greater risks of mortality.

Need for connectivity

The movement of individuals between populations, and PAs, helps maintain genetic diversity, allowing populations to circumnavigate environmental disasters while preventing population inbreeding. These movements also allow for a steady influx of new individuals into populations.

Implementing conservation actions where populations are safeguarded while also retaining ‘connectivity’ between these populations requires treating multiple clusters of populations in a landscape as one entity – a metapopulation. Large infrastructure projects such as highways, mines, and hydropower projects can act as barriers and hinder connectivity in these metapopulations.

Assessing connectivity for large animals requires the use of techniques like camera-trapping, sign-based surveys, satellite telemetry and/or genetic DNA-based laboratory techniques. They help visualise how animals navigate landscapes.

Research studies that investigated connectivity of tiger populations in Central India provided the first evidence of tigers moving long distances (~345 km) through high-risk habitats. These findings were instrumental in the demarcation of forest corridors that structurally connected PAs. Scientists posit that unplanned development in the region could isolate and eventually eliminate tiger populations, a phenomenon known as local extirpation.

Areas outside PAs pose varying degrees of constraints for different species moving through them. Species that are more habitat-sensitive than tigers, such as the endangered dholes (Asiatic wild dogs), find it more difficult to move through high-risk areas between populations.

One study from central India showed that dholes sparingly used the Kanha-Pench forest corridor in Madhya Pradesh, even though the area is a critical movement corridor for tigers. Similarly, movement of elephants outside the confines of PAs in Northeast India continues to be impacted by their interactions with people residing in these landscape mosaics.

More recently, a study on dholes outlined a framework for examining connectivity across India. In doing so, the researchers identified highways of dhole movement, important metapopulations, and critical dhole ‘conservation landscapes’ in the country. Using such approaches to facilitate connectivity for dholes and other threatened, forest-sensitive species will require dedicated efforts from a management standpoint.

The way forward

India has the second largest network of roads in the world and plans to increase the number of national highways under the behemoth ‘Bharatmala Pariyojana’ project. Initiating a countrywide system of reporting wild animal mortality around national highways and railways, as with other countries where mass animal migrations occur, would help to monitor mortality and better plan future infrastructure and transportation projects.

Current projects need to urgently undertake mitigation measures (speed breakers, under/over passes, etc.) that protect both people and wildlife. Acknowledging the need for animals to move outside PAs and recognising the utility of shared human-wildlife landscapes in proposed infrastructure development projects can be the first steps towards bringing about a more planned, sustainable development for all of India.

India’s future as a global superpower hinges on the country’s cultivation of scientific temper and cultural relationship with wild animals. For a young, dynamic India with aspirations of economic growth and good quality of life, the true success of a ‘Gati Shakti’ project lies in achieving objectives that target seamless movement for all denizens – the country’s wild animals included. This will help cement India’s holistic growth for decades to come.

Ryan G. Rodrigues is an independent researcher working on landscape ecology, conservation genetics and carnivore biology. Arjun Srivathsa is a DST INSPIRE Campus Fellow at the National Centre for Biological Sciences-TIFR, Bengaluru, and works on the conservation ecology of India’s large carnivores.



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